Cancer treatment out of reach for the poor

Lack of adequate facilities at government hospitals forces patients to knock the door of costly private hospitals

Tufail Ahmed/Aamir Khan April 17, 2024


Despite the prevalence of cancer in the country, especially Karachi, treatment for the complicated disease remains inaccessible for many due to the exorbitant costs, which results in patients opting to succumb to the illness rather than spend a fortune on getting treated.

As per the Mayo Clinic, cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the world; and over the past few decades survival rates for the disease have increased. However, in Pakistan’s context, survival depends on access to costly treatments, which not many can afford.

According to Professor Dr Noor Muhammad Soomro, former head of the Civil Hospital’s cancer department, more than 100,000 new cancer patients are reported in Pakistan every year, with 20,000 of these cases coming from Karachi. Despite the prevalence of the disease in the port city, cancer treatment facilities at the government level are inadequate in the entirety of Sindh; whereas, private treatment costs an arm and a leg.

“Due to the high cost of treatment, poor patients are forced to look for alternative means of treatment like hakeems,” said Dr Soomro. When asked to elaborate upon the cost of treatment, Dr Soomro informed that chemotherapy sessions are determined according to the stage of the disease.

“There may be 3 to 18 sessions of chemotherapy and radiation therapy sessions may range from 5 to 30 sessions. Chemotherapy costs between Rs 100,000 to Rs 500,000 per patient. Whereas radiation therapy costs between Rs 5,000 to Rs 15,000 per session.” Dr Soomro further added that despite the high costs, radiation therapy is not readily available at government hospitals, which adds to patients’ woes. Rehana, who was diagnosed with breast cancer, agrees.

Read also: Cancer and Pakistan

“I had to seek treatment at a private hospital and chemotherapy cost Rs 40,000 per session, whereas radiation therapy cost Rs 15,000 per session.”

Due to the exorbitant costs, Rehana’s husband was forced to sell her jewellery to fund the treatment. “All in all, we had to pay between Rs 1.5 million to Rs 1.8 million,” she disclosed. Amir, whose wife is also suffering from breast cancer, also had to dole out large amounts of cash for her well-being. “My wife underwent 17 sessions of chemotherapy after being diagnosed and each session cost more than Rs 40,000 at a private hospital. I pray that no one gets cancer because it is an expensive disease to treat,” he remarked. While Rehana and Amir had the finances to spend on cancer treatment, other patients are not in the same positions. According to Humaira Siddiqui, an activist, the lack of cancer treatment facilities at public hospitals means that many poor patients have no choice but to succumb to the disease. “There should be a health insurance policy at the government level for the treatment of deserving patients suffering from cancer,” suggested Siddiqui. However, it remains to be seen whether the provincial government will introduce a health insurance policy for the poor anytime soon given the influx of cancer patients in the province. In this regard, a Spokesman of the Sindh Health Department, informed that the department was doing what it could. “We are trying to provide the best possible facilities for cancer treatment in as many government hospitals as possible,” the Spokesman assured while talking to the Express Tribune.


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